What Hockey Wants: Drama, Narrative, and Sports

My paper, “What Hockey Wants: Drama, Narrative, and Sports,” was published this month (just in time for the Stanley Cup playoffs) in Well Played Journal from ETC Press. The paper draws on game studies, literary theory, psychology, and other disciplines to discuss how narrative works in one of my all-time favorite games, hockey. Here are the introductory paragraphs, which summarize the core themes of this project:

Like many sports, ice hockey, or “hockey,” as it is known to its players and fans, generates legend, myth, history, biography, autobiography, and other forms of narrative at a furious pace. In, around, and among instances of gameplay, hockey produces dramatic situations which resolve into a variety of public and private narratives. Some of these narratives, such as the stories of an individual game played late at night on a neighborhood rink, are ephemeral and known only to certain players; others are so widely told and acquire such cultural significance that they are memorialized in statuary, feature films, currency, or novels; and some leave traces in the game itself as strategies, traditions, superstitions, play styles, and written and unwritten rules. Hockey is a creature of narrative – it eats it and excretes it – and yet, somewhat amazingly, it does not require any kind of centralized story department or author to spin its yarns. Rather, like all sports, and to a certain degree like all games, hockey is a set of protocols that propagates and iterates itself by producing the kinds of situations that are worth telling stories about.

Despite this impressive narrative capability, sports like hockey are not frequently mentioned in the discussions game studies and game design communities stage around the topic of narrative. One possible explanation for this relative lack of mention is that the ways narrative manifests in sports may at first glance seem more related to modes of spectatorship than modes of play, and therefore may be considered exterior to the kinds of narrative thought to be more properly “native” to games. It may also be the case that narrative is perceived as simply more central or essential – particularly from a player experience perspective – to things like adventure games, role-playing games, storytelling games, open-world exploration games, and interactive fiction, than it is to sports. Such overtly story-centric games are certainly worthy of consideration. For scholars and designers interested in the poetics, aesthetics, and politics of digital gameplay, it is perhaps understandable that the sweaty world of sports be overlooked. It is also understandable that some researchers will prefer to explore more exclusively digital forms of gameplay insofar as their work may relate more directly to how narrative connects to current trends in technology and communications than to games as a broader category of design. Regardless, eliding sports from the discussion risks depriving us of important ways of speaking about and designing about games and narrative. Understanding the powerful and parsimonious ways in which sports instantiate various forms of narrative, and the ways in which those instantiations can in turn become incorporated into the most basic structures of the games themselves, can provide useful models and metaphors for examining all games as both artifacts and producers of culture.

This paper presents an examination of hockey as a cybernetic system, paying particular attention to the role of narrative. Like all sports, hockey offers opportunities for individuals to take part in dramatic situations that would not otherwise occur. As players, teams, and fans actively engage with these situations, they produce and consume various kinds of public and private narrative. These narratives in turn shape subsequent situations both within and beyond the formal boundaries of the sport. Through a series of examples from hockey and related games, this paper examines how narrative emerges in, around, and among various contexts of hockey gameplay; how this narrative impacts both ludic and paraludic situations; and how it can become encoded in the formal structures of the game itself. (ETC Press: Well Played Journal, Volume 4 Number 1)

Get the paper as a .pdf here, or get the whole journal issue here.

Thanks to Drew Davidson and ETC Press, and special thanks to Sean C. Duncan, who served as Guest Editor for this issue alongside Caro Williams.

Kalmykia’s Alien Chessmaster’s Chess City

Games don’t need to be linked to an existing IP or storyworld to generate enthusiasm, excitement, and narrative. Indeed, they don’t need to start off with any kind of storyworld at all for players to engage with them, obsess about them, and tell stories about them. If they’re good enough, entire industries can pop up, theme parks will be built, and players will dwell on them even more than they will the latest theories about characters from Game of Thrones. Consider the contemporary world of chess, which includes things like a Russian dissident famous for representing humanity against the forces of artificial intelligence, a Kalmykian billionaire with ties to the Nazis who claims to have been abducted by aliens, and an international rivalry between superpowers. It even has its own city, the appropriately named Chess City:

Back in the days of the Silk Road caravans, this is what people might have called a mirage – a huge glass dome, surrounded by a California-style housing development, rising from the parched brown steppe. That shimmering vision has been brought to life here in Elista, the capital of the Russian republic of Kalmykia, a monument to the power of ego over nature, not to mention common sense and even reason. Its name is Chess City. Like a glassed-in Biosphere on Mars, the four-story dome encloses a cool, fresh world of carpets and comfort, of whispers and intense concentration, where the most brilliant minds of chess compete for diamond crowns. For miles around – in fact for almost all the rest of Kalmykia – 300,000 people live in poverty on the barren plains, where tank trucks deliver drinking water and where dried sheep dung, hoarded through the summer, fuels stoves in winter. (New York Times)

Chess City is one expression of how chess seeds the construction of its own strange world simply by being an interesting game to play. Like a sport, chess offers no storyworld to begin with; rather, it is through the play of the game and the accrual of narrative over time that it tells its tales and builds its monuments. This generative capacity is some of the most intriguing (and sometimes dangerous) black magic of game design.

DiGRA Talk: Drama, Narrative, and Sports

This talk presents an examination of hockey as it exists in early 21st century North America, paying particular attention to how narrative both emerges from, and is embedded within, the situations produced by the sport. Like all sports, hockey offers opportunities for individuals to take part in dramatic situations that would not otherwise occur. As players, teams, and fans actively engage with these situations, they produce various kinds of public and private narrative. These narratives in turn shape subsequent situations both within and beyond the formal boundaries of the sport. Through a series of examples from professional, amateur, and videogame versions of hockey, this talk examines how narrative emerges in, around, and among various contexts of hockey gameplay; how this narrative accrues and impacts both ludic and paraludic situations; and how it can become encoded in the formal structures of the game itself.

Talk delivered August 5, 2014 at DiGRA.

Paper forthcoming. Draft version available upon request.

Donjon.bin.sh

donjon-map-generator
The “cookbook” in TSR’s 1991 D&D tome, The Dungeon Master’s Design Kit, is a legendary cheat sheet for rapidly conceiving remarkably fleshed out RPG scenarios by rolling dice and consulting tables. Donjon automates the template-and-die-driven scenario generator contained in TSR’s text, enabling visitors to spin up a near infinitude of compelling scenarios simply by hitting F5. But the “Adventure Generator” is just the tip of the iceberg at donjon, as the site provides an unequalled wealth of RPG map, character, and worldbuilding generators, all of which are designed with a great deal of thoughtfulness and elegance. Even if you aren’t into RPGs, donjon is worth a visit for its many clever takes on the random story generator and the procedural generation of narrative artifacts and spaces.

See also: RPG Athenaeum.

“[C]inema replaced all other modes of narration with sequential narrative, an assembly line of shots…”

“[C]inema replaced all other modes of narration with sequential narrative, an assembly line of shots that appear on the screen one at a time. For centuries, a spatialized narrative in which all images appear simultaneously dominated European visual culture; in the twentieth century it was relegated to ‘minor’ cultural forms such as comics or technical illustrations. ‘Real’ culture of the twentieth century came to speak in linear chains, aligning itself with the assembly line of the industrial society […]. New media continue this mode, giving the user information one screen at a time. At least this is the case when it tries to become ‘real’ culture (interactive narratives, games); when it simply functions as an interface to information, it is not ashamed to present much more information on the screen at once, whether in the form of tables, normal or pull-down menus, or lists.” (232)

-Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media

Fatale

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Belgian experimental video game developer Tale of Tales has released its new game, Fatale:

Fatale is an interactive vignette in realtime 3D inspired by the story of Salome.

Explore a living tableau filled with references to the legendary tale and enjoy the moonlit serenity of a fatal night in the orient. Fatale offers an experimental play experience that stimulates the imagination and encourages multiple interpretations and personal associations. (Tale of Tales: Fatale)

Narrative, Play and Social Space

I’m interested in addressing the question of how an increasingly mobile, ubiquitous and interoperable communications infrastructure can enable new forms of computationally-mediated narrative, both in terms of traditional author-to-audience storytelling and emerging modes of collaborative networked expression and participation. Three broad classes of activity inform this inquiry: the development of cross-media artworks that go beyond the frame of the screen; procedural approaches to drama management; and the role of play in creating hybrid forms of audience and community.

Key questions I will address in this context include: Can highly-mediated approaches to play and narrative, many of which involve the deep and tangled integration of story-telling and story-consuming into the fabric of everyday life, produce emotional and social effects analogous to those produced by the novel or the narrative cinema? What kinds of theoretical frameworks can help us to understand how ruleset-driven cross-media narrative experiences fit into the history of performance and representational art? And finally, as the lines between audience and community, author and participant blur in the context of highly personalized, network-enabled game-like story-activities such as SF0 or World Without Oil, is it even possible to address issues of identity and epistemology without inventing new terms and poetics?

Crucial to this study will be an examination of the intersection between structured social play and computational drama-management systems (e.g. Facade, Oz). How can procedural approaches to story-making help to guide massively-scaled improvisations in social space? What are the limitations of such systems, and what are their core affordances? Can game-like, goal-directed improvisational encounters be mediated by computational agencies such that the end result is a focused and clearly-articulated narrative? Or is the insistence on notions of dramatic unity, parsimony and closure an unreasonable intervention of “legacy” critical modes on a fundamentally novel medium?

An inquiry into the nature of this intersection is essential as we enter an age of ubiquitous information technology wherein the respective agencies of authors, crowds and machines promise to collide in productive and unpredictable ways. Drawing on recent research in the field of computational drama management, I will explore the notion of a “procedurally-authored Alternate Reality Game system,” both as a means of deploying cross-media artworks such as my ongoing Black Sea Tapes project, and as a way to enable massively-scaled narrative play systems wherein player/participants co-create game-like narrative objectives alongside a computational agency. In developing this system, I hope to explore a range of possible futures for the role of computation in cross-media narrative and structured social play.

Key readings include the critical theory of Deleuze and Guattari; drama management research by Michael Mateas, Andrew Stern and Joseph Bates; the “relational aesthetics” of Nicolas Bourriaud; Situationist polemics and manifestos from the “New Games Movement” of the 1970s; notes on the persuasive and political aspects of game play by Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca; Jane McGonigal’s extensive research on Alternate Reality Gaming; and visions of the future of community and ubiquitous computing by Clay Shirky and Rich Gold.

TXT of The Living Dead

I took the original movie (public domain) and broke it out into 500 frames to visually tell the original story from beginning to end. Within those frames there are about 150 frames with speech bubbles. Text messages sent in from participants show up in those frames in the order that they are received. The movie moves forward when a new message is received. The other frames are action frames that play through automatically until they hit a speech frame. Once all the speech frames have been filled the movie can then be viewed from beginning to end with the new audience generated dialogue. (TXTual Healing: TXT of The Living Dead)